The ancient pagans believed their gods were real, because they took so long to make them up that they forgot having done it. Although today’s neo-pagans, who make up their gods all at once, don’t have that excuse, they only half-know that they are doing it. Sometimes, as in the feminist goddess cults, the devotees seem to be practicing a weird make-believe. Sometimes, as in Satanism, it is hard to tell what they think they are doing, for in theory they are worshipping evil, but in practice they are worshipping pleasure. Sometimes, as in what might be called Saganism, they are trying to invest things that are very, very big, like the material cosmos, with the awe that should be given to their Creator.
With some exceptions, at this point in history most neo-pagans don’t know that they have gods. When they say they don’t believe in God, they mean they don’t believe in that god. In fact each gives everything for some dream of vastness, wealth, excitement, sex, control, irresponsible gratification of the will, or some other vain thing, all without knowing that this is worship. How long the delusion of having no gods can persist, I don’t know.
It is strange that neo-pagans think that the God of whom Jews and Christians speak is just another lie of the poets, as Jove was. I call it strange because the first canon of the rational mind is that there are reasons for things. Moreover there has to be a First Reason, because an infinite regress of reasons for things is no reason at all. Ultimately, then, whatever does not have to be must depend on something that does. This First Reason, the God of Jews and Christians, is the One who does have to be, the necessary reality on whom all other reality depends.
To reject this God, then, is to say that there don’t have to be reasons for things, that in the end, nothing has to make sense. And let us be very clear: No one who believes that things don’t have to make sense has any business saying that anything at all is true or false. For how would he know?
To come back to Jove: Pagan religion didn’t believe in a First Reason. Though Edith Hamilton writes that “the terrifying irrational has no place in classical mythology,” this is itself a myth. Classical mythology was more or less explicit about nothing making sense. It didn’t picture the First Reason creating all things from nothing and then calling all things back to Himself. Rather it pictured the gods themselves coming from the void. Since everything was held up by chaos, ultimately nothing was held up at all. All light was drawn back to that unreason like dark homing pigeons. Let us give the Greeks and Romans this: They tried not to speak more of their dirty secret than they had to. Though the Norsemen, their minds filled with Ragnarök, could hardly speak of anything else, let us give them some credit too: They were brave about it.
If nothing has to make sense, then reason is no more than a special case of unreason. We ought to recognize this state of affairs, because our own materialists are in the same pickle. Matter doesn’t have to be, so if you are a materialist, believing in nothing but matter, you must believe that things that don’t have to be just are – that no explanation is needed. Question: “Why is there something and not rather nothing?” Answer: “Hey, whatever.” And so causes, effects, and explanations creep from the womb of darkness. Sanity perches on a twig at the edge of a chasm.
Though the pagan philosophers came from the same pagan culture, the greatest of them – Plato, Aristotle, some of the Stoics – did not view reason as just a special case of unreason. In this, their radicalism has been underrated. They grasped that reason rules. Some of them even fought through to the realization that if this so, then yes, there must be a First Reason. Though merely as a convenience, sometimes they borrowed pre-existing names like “Jove” for the First Reason, they were well aware that if God was this, then He was far from the Jove of the poets.
It never occurred to them that one could know the First Reason face to face, any more than the characters in a story could know the author.
But what if He made Himself known?
In the city of the philosophers, St. Paul said to some of these men, I see that you acknowledge the Unknown God. Let me tell you Who He is.
Instead of enjoying his vocation, he thinks that his vocation is enjoyment.
Novelist and writing teacher Claire Messud, addressing the class of 2020: “You’ve been asked to work harder and longer than students in past generations, and there has been increasingly little space for the immaterial superfluities that make life worthwhile – sitting outside with friends, talking, the breeze tickling your skin; listening, eyes closed, to the rhythm of the tides; reading War and Peace, or a cookbook, or a poem.”
Yes, that’s what we keep telling them.
Professor Messud has got the symptom right: There isn’t much silence, stillness, and quiet in our students’ lives. But have students really been asked to work harder and longer than students in past generations? I concede that this may be the case in the natural sciences. But in the liberal arts?
Judge for yourself. In early America, when our schools of higher education were just getting started, all students at Yale and Harvard studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. They read the classical authors in the original languages, which is how they learned history. They learned to master mathematics, classical logic, geography, natural science, ethics, metaphysics, and the discipline of argument, then called rhetoric. They recited, discussed, and engaged in disputations.
Those were undergraduates.
Today, core courses have been almost entirely replaced by distribution requirements – choose one from column A, one from column B, and one from column C. Much of the curriculum has been politicized, and the pragmatist notion that skills are more important than facts is accepted without question, as though it were possible to learn skills without the facts to use them on. Though my own institution has higher than average admission standards, many of my students read at what used to be considered high school level. By empowering them to evaluate their own teachers, the universities put weapons in their hands to punish the few who do work them hard.
The lives of our students do lack quiet -- chiefly for the same reason the lives of their elders lack quiet: It is a choice. For when the soul becomes silent and still, it may hear its thoughts, and if you live in a certain way, such thoughts are disturbing. The favored solutions are constant busyness, continuous noise, and trying to do many things at once.
I love my students, and I am not maligning them. Some of them are very bright and earnest, and would love to be taught the liberal arts, but we are not teaching them. Every now and then a student visits my office to say, “I’ve come to realize that I’m not getting a real education. How can I become an educated person?”
If you are that kind of student, I tell you now: Don’t settle. Don’t settle for what we spoon feed you. Don’t listen to those who tell you how hard you have been challenged. There is so much more! It’s not too late. With guidance and strong motivation, you can still receive an education. The one fatal error is to suppose that we will give it to you without a fight.
Opening quotations from Claire Messud,
“A Moment for Inward Pilgrimages,”
The Wall Street Journal
(2-3 May 2020), p. C3
I mentioned in a previous post that some people think we ought to practice social distancing not just while the epidemic runs its course, but from now on.
In a world in which more people than ever before think that when you die, you’re nothing but worm food, it’s hard to resist the idea that this sort of hysteria is connected with other common ones.
Fear of death, of course. Fixation on control of self. Fixation on control of others. Avoidance of things that threaten such control, such as marrying and having children. Obsession with bodily satisfaction, bodily beauty, and bodily perfection.
Not to mention abortion, suicide, and all that sort of thing. Sometimes even things that seem opposites grow from the same root.
Now I’ve seen everything: Boutique rioting.
A crowd floating down Austin’s famous Sixth Street. Young men holding hands with their girl friends, strolling along and looking. Every third person taking a video or selfie.
And in the background, a store being looted.
The mayor says he is pleased that some of them are wearing masks.
I have nothing to say against real science. But isn’t it interesting that the people who talk most about “following the science” usually don’t know much about the science?
Today we have a vaccine for chickenpox, which is much safer than the disease. Get your children vaccinated! But when my generation was small, that option didn’t exist. The only way to develop immunity was to catch it and recover from it. If a child in the neighborhood came down with the illness, parents would sometimes bring their children over to play with him so that their children would get it too. This carried a risk, but since the disease is much more dangerous in adulthood, taking the risk made a certain sense. For if the children didn’t come down with the illness until after they grew up, their danger would be far greater.
Mind you, I am not proposing that you take your children to play with infected children. Please don’t. Yet since the great majority of healthy people recover from the coronavirus, in the absence of a vaccine it’s actually good that eventually many of the healthiest people will get it and recover from it. If enough people develop immunity, then everyone else is safer. While we are waiting for that vaccine – and let us hope the wait won’t be long -- the chances of passing on the disease to the weakest and most vulnerable persons are greatly reduced.
I am amazed that so few people understand that except for those for whom the disease would be most dangerous, social distancing was never supposed to be about preventing its spread. It was about slowing its spread so that medical facilities would not be overwhelmed. Flattening the curve means stretching it out, not wiping it out. That goal has largely been achieved.
In all but a few isolated places, manic efforts at completely preventing the spread of the infection cannot succeed. All they can do is delay the development of immunity among the population at large, putting those who are most in danger in even greater danger. In short, excessive fear of infection means that more people will die.
Surveys consistently show that overwhelmingly majorities of journalists identify themselves as liberal or progressive (pretty much like university professors). In theory, journalists could be liberal and still treat conservatives fairly. Conservatives say that they don’t. Liberals respond by citing supposedly neutral studies and “fact checks” showing that they do. But studies of bias are married by gross biases about what counts as bias.
Another reason for denying bias is that it often lurks in subtle things that make big differences. For example, how do journalists compare numbers? Suppose the average incomes of groups A and B are $50,000 and $100,000 in one year, and $55,000 and $106,000 in the following year. Comparing dollar amounts, the difference between the wealthier and poorer groups has increased from $50,000 to $51,000. But comparing ratios, the wealthier group started out making twice as much as the poorer group, but ended making only about 1.9 times as much. So in dollar terms the poor are falling further behind, but in percentage terms they are catching up. The safe thing would be to report the raw numbers along with both measures of difference, but does that often happen?
The third and most interesting reason why liberal bias may be denied is that different biases may obscure each other. Leftism is far from being the only common bias in the media.
For example, in a paradoxical sense, journalists tend to be pro-presidency. Most are in love with the institution of the Presidency, even though they may detest the fellow who inhabits it at any given moment. No other office in the government is so made for the media. It's unique, it's powerful, it's glamorous, it contains within itself all sorts of possibilities for tragedy and triumph, agony and ecstasy.
News people also tend to be pro-politics. Political developments are treated as big news; developments in marriage, family, religion, and society are slighted. One reason may be that political changes can happen more quickly. But another is that the liberal views of most journalists lead them to consider government more important.
Media folk tend to be pro-passion even if they adopt a cool style of reportage. During one of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns, a female supporter standing at the back of the stage shed tears as the candidate delivered his speech. Brit Hume, not at all an excitable man, and one of the rare network commentators who is conservative, was moved to offer the awed remark that she showed what politics is all about. Contrast the Founders, who considered passion deadly to republican politics, built features into the Constitution to defuse it, and hoped that the people would be calm.
Reporters like activity. Whether a politician is liberal or conservative, they like him to do things. Not only does activity make good press, but it ties in with at least a part of liberal ideology about the proper role of government.
They like conflict. It’s boring to report that people are getting along, but it’s fun to write about people scratching each other’s eyes out. If there isn’t any conflict to report, journalists try to invent it. “Mr. President, what would you do if your subordinate refused to obey your orders?” “He’s not going to do that.” “But Mr. President, what if he did?”
Almost all of them are hostile to expressions of faith. Most view faith as a matter of feelings with no basis in reason, even if the religion under examination views faith and reason as allies, as Catholicism does. Most place all strong belief in the same basket, for example calling strong conviction “fundamentalist” whether it is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu. Most connect strong belief with intolerance, even if, like St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the things the believer believes is that God does not desire an unwilling worship or a forced repentance. Most also assume that faith is hypocritical – “he doesn’t really believe that” -- while faithlessness is sincere. If we use the term “religion” for a person’s unconditional loyalties, then the anti-religious journalist is religious too, but he doesn’t tell you – and may not know -- what god he himself worships.
They glory in scandal. Virtue may be more interesting to live, but vice is more interesting to watch. Even if the fellow bleeding in the water is one of theirs, journalists find it difficult to resist joining the sharks, although sometimes, if the stakes are high enough, they will do it. In fact, anyone who shows conspicuous marks of virtue – or even of thinking it important -- is bound to become a special target. This is not entirely bad; if moral character is important, then when a statesman does something deplorable, we need to know about it. On the other hand, excessive coverage of real, accused, hypothetical, and even imaginary crookedness, is not only the product of cynicism but also produces it. It makes us doubtful about the very possibility of good character and blasé about its importance.
They love disaster. As Joseph Epstein has remarked, “In journalism, they used to say ‘if it bleeds, it leads’; nowadays the saying is ‘if it weeps, it keeps.’” Grief is more interesting than happiness. Catastrophes and human sorrows sell the news. It is in the interests of the news industry to make most trouble seem worse than it is. Someone tends to be blamed for everything bad that occurs. Who gets the blame is another question, and may have little to do with who, if anyone, is responsible.
Although they are still called reporters, more and more they prefer interpreting facts to reporting them – even if the facts are imaginary. Sometimes the interpretation is reported as a fact, and the fact is not reported at all. This begins with slanted headlines, which are all that some readers read. As columnist Holman Jenkins points out, “reporters are actually praised for ‘advancing the narrative’ – e.g., finding ‘facts’ to support a desired story line.”
Finally, there is the narcissus syndrome, for journalists tend to be fascinated with themselves. One aspect of this is that they are unfamiliar with people who are not like themselves, and often contemptuous of them – although there is some evidence that in general, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.* Another aspect is that journalists tend to find themselves eminently worthy of attention. Reporters report the opinions of reporters. Headlines are composed about headlines. The dumping of a network news anchor is treated as having the same news value as the resignation of a prime minister whose government has collapsed.
What about my own biases? I am putting these observations in plain sight so that you can decide for yourself whether I am wearing my spectacles crooked. Here is how it seems to me; compare it with how it seems to you.